Opinion: As Military Budget Grows, Civil-Military Divide Remains

Current defense policies risk alienating servicemembers and potential recruits

A boy sits on his veteran father’s shoulders during the New York City Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2016. Interest in military service is dropping among American youth. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images file photo)
A boy sits on his veteran father’s shoulders during the New York City Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2016. Interest in military service is dropping among American youth. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images file photo)
Posted January 22, 2018 at 5:03am

The most important resource for America’s military isn’t money. It’s the men and women who volunteer to serve.

But current defense policies risk alienating those very people who are now in the military and those we hope will join in the future.

Part of the problem has been a lack of consistent and predictable funding. Congress has employed the self-defeating “sequester caps” on annual defense appropriations bills, fearing — and failing — to attack the real cause of rapidly rising deficits. This has led to an annual Kabuki dance between the two parties as they maneuver to ensure that political blame for either a government shutdown or another continuing resolution falls on the other side. These annual meltdowns have degraded the Pentagon’s ability to plan and created almost impossible choices among readiness, operations, training, procurement, and research and development. Equally disruptive are the resulting delays in defense weapons innovation and reforms, and uncertainty for uniformed and civilian personnel and their families.

So, as a bipartisan appropriations deal to lift the destructive caps for defense and nondefense discretionary spending finally comes into focus, attention should shift toward structural personnel issues that continue to deleteriously affect our military.

Worrying trends

The foundation of our nation’s military strength is the willingness of its sons and daughters to serve in the all-volunteer force. But will there be enough interest in military service to sustain U.S. strength in the future? Recent trends are worrying. Only a quarter of all 18- to 24-year-olds are even eligible to serve; interest in serving or even knowledge of the military as an option is dropping among American youth; as much as 80 percent of new recruits come from a “warrior caste,” families with a prior history of service; and increasingly, fewer military families recommend service to their children.

Some of these factors have widened the divide between the military and the rest of American society. Most Americans have no personal connection to the military and are therefore unaware of the opportunities military service — even for a limited term — may provide. More worrisome are the signs that the children of our current military force are discouraged or dissuaded from future service by their parents, their parents’ experience or even their own experience as military “brats.” Stresses placed on servicemembers and their families by nearly 17 years of war, extended and repeated deployments, defense budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty, the impacts of sequestration, and other factors have led to increasing disillusionment.

Analysts from across the ideological spectrum have for years taken notice of this civil-military divide and its harmful effects. The question now is, what should policymakers do to address the breach?

Toward solutions

Experts at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent event “Citizen Soldiers or Warrior Caste: Who Will Serve in America’s Military?” had several ideas to address growing discontent among military families and the risk of serious alienation from the military by the general public. Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families (a nonprofit military family organization), described how the civil-military divide has grown in recent years, according to data from her group’s recently released survey of servicemembers and spouses.

Many of these ideas are in line with the recommendations of BPC’s Task Force on Defense Personnel, which released its final report last year, including the expansion of Selective Service registration to women and a mandate for universal participation in the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, for all high schoolers. The task force believed these steps would introduce more of America’s youth to the opportunity of military service and the potential benefits — tangible and intangible — that it could provide.

Momentum is building to further detail and implement solutions for this divide. The recently launched National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which was authorized by the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, will likely develop ideas and recommendations to address this critical national security issue.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees have addressed some of these problems in the last two defense authorization bills. Senior civilian and military leaders understand the challenges and continue to try to alter long-established personnel dogma and legacy actions. But innovation and flexibility often fail in the bureaucratic quicksand of the Pentagon. It will take intense pressure by the military leadership and Congress to drive personnel reform that accommodates the new realities of family structure and military service.

If America’s all-volunteer force is to survive, the civil-military divide must be bridged. Policymakers must come together to recreate the relationship between America’s military and society writ large, or suffer the undoubtedly dire consequences for our nation’s security and economy.

Steve Bell is a senior advisor in economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.